In S.F., lawyer defends lawsuits against Swiss

When attorney Morris Ratner began reviewing Holocaust-era archives declassified in 1995, he was struck by their clinical, matter-of-fact approach to the disposition of victims' assets.

The U.S. government documents conveyed no sense of moral outrage and the fate of the victims' property was "documented like a balance sheet from a Seven-Eleven store," he said Thursday of last week at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club.

A partner with the S.F.-based Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein law firm, Ratner addressed an audience of about three dozen. He now works out of the firm's New York office.

For Ratner, a 32-year-old Bay Area native, the documents made the Holocaust suddenly feel like a contemporary event.

"It brought the whole thing alive, like it was yesterday," he said.

After the declassification ordered by President Clinton, researchers from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum discovered that banks, insurance companies and other businesses profited from the genocide. As a result, Lieff, Cabraser became involved, along with other law firms.

In late 1996, Lieff, Cabraser and other firms filed class-action lawsuits against Swiss banks not because they were the worst offenders, Ratner said, but because documents showing how Swiss banks took advantage of the Holocaust were the first ones reviewed.

Those lawsuits, ultimately consolidated in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, resulted in a $1.25 billion settlement this summer.

In recent weeks, some Jewish leaders have expressed concern that efforts to obtain compensation for Holocaust survivors and the heirs of victims may result in a public impression that the Holocaust is about money.

While acknowledging that "no dollar amount will ever pay for the crimes that were committed during the Holocaust," Ratner defended the Swiss bank litigation and other suits now pending against businesses that allegedly made illicit profits from the Holocaust. Such actions, he said, demonstrate that private companies that take advantage of human rights violations can and will be held accountable.

"That is a message that we are proud to send worldwide with this settlement," Ratner said.

Although the $1.25 billion Swiss bank settlement was reached in August, Ratner estimates that it may not be final for another year. Lawyers are still in the process of putting the agreement in writing. Once that is done, a notice of the settlement will be published worldwide, giving interested parties an opportunity to express their views to the court.

Ratner said the Swiss banks have made a first payment of $250 million, which is being held in escrow. He expects U.S. District Judge Edward Korman to receive numerous opinions about who should get the $1.25 billion.

"It's a delicate issue, and it's not one that will be easy to resolve," Ratner said.

He added that some advocate simply dividing the money among living Holocaust survivors, whom he said number in the hundreds of thousands worldwide. Others recommend bestowing the money on communities that represent those who died in the Holocaust.

Some of the money may go to plaintiffs' lawyers. Most of the lawyers worked on the case pro bono, Ratner said, but some may seek "very modest" fees. Lieff, Cabraser, which specializes in class-action suits, has not yet announced whether it will seek fees.